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Why dog training is actually more like relationship therapy

Relationship therapy? Is this lady serious?!

Yes, I am....

But first!Some background on this,

As I have gone deeper and deeper into dog training which at it's core is behavior modification or"changing behavior" I have gone deeper and deeper into psychology.

Human and Animal psychology.

Because you as the human can't change your dog's behavior without changing yours.

On this journey to learning more about Animals I am learning a ton about humans and how we relate to one another (I am actually currently enrolled in a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Practitioner course for humans!) I find it fascinating because there are so many parallels between human and animal psychology and why we do what we do!

... And yet...

We are always taught in the scientific community not to put human emotions or experiences onto Animals. Or, in other words, we are taught not to "anthropomorphize" Animals because it creates biased research.

It can lead to things like thinking your dog chewed the furniture while your were gone out of spite (Human thinking/feeling) vs. in reality your dog was stressed because you left and chewing helps them relieve that stress (Canine thinking/feeling)

So it makes sense,

but I do have some issues with this line of thinking...

I find that sometimes the very real similarities between the emotional lives of humans and animals are discarded because of this desire to intentionally look at this subject with a narrow lens. It's like we are intentionally not seeing the similarities out of a fear of bias, when this in itself is bias! And often these anecdotal findings are later supported by research anyway! As if trainers in the work itself were ahead of the science itself...

Eckhart Tolle, a very famous writer and modern spiritual teacher, described this phenomenon beautifully in a podcast I was recently listening to.

I will paraphrase to the best of my ability what he said here:

" The mind want to know things, and dislikes the unknown, but the mind doesn't know that there are TWO modalities of knowing;

Conceptual and Non-conceptual

Conceptual knowing is knowing facts about something or someone.

Non-conceptual knowing is knowing something or someone through experiencing them. It is holistic knowing felt by the whole of your person.

The mind dismisses non-conceptual thinking and also thinks it's dangerous.

You can know the name of a mountain and the names of the minerals in the mountain, but there is another part of you that knows the mountain on a deeper level as something sacred, and beautiful beyond words."

In other words sometimes the questions we ask about training and life with our dogs are too big for science. The questions are immeasurable- not able to be quantified and therefore unable to be studied in a scientific vernacular.

So I guess, needless to say, I just keep an open mind and allow myself to view the world through all lenses with the goal of deeper understanding and connection to the animals and people I work with.

I find myself needing research less and less to support the things I know in my heart to be true based on my experience training and working with animals.

And at the same time as a former science student I still find science extremely useful, I just no longer think it's the only answer there is.

So how we relate to one another doesn't always have to be entirely based in science. I think there are also deeper ways of "knowing" things and dog training is no different.

So how does dog training compare to relationship therapy?

The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines relationship therapy as...

"Relationship therapy is based on providing emotional support and creating an accepting atmosphere that fosters personality growth and elicits attitudes and past experiences for examination and analysis during sessions"

What I do when training dogs:

Provide an environment or atmosphere conducive to learning for canines by providing emotional support through training and environmental management while re-examining past experiences and re-introducing these past experiences in a way that provides new pathways to growth, change, and empowerment for both Human and Canine.

I think it sounds pretty darn similar!

I guess the biggest difference for me when comparing these two definitions is that I focus a lot more on the present and where we are headed in training vs analyzing a dog's past which we can't change anyway, but does give us useful information.

The other thing I find really interesting is that even the conflicts people often have with their dogs are very similar to conflicts you would have with a spouse, friend, or co-worker. And the way we as humans go about solving those conflicts says a ton about our internal beliefs about relationships and our personal decision making process.

He never listens to me.

She doesn't respect me.

Why wont he do what I want him to whenever I ask ?

Why does she have to act this way?

Why is he embarrassing me?

She's only doing this because she gets something out of it (a cookie!)

When you look at training with your dog through the lens of "relationship therapy" now your focus is on your connection, communication, and understanding of your dog, and your training itself becomes a form of "therapy" and communication. It also puts the focus on how you respond in the relationship and your part in it, so the problems don't only point back to your dog they become something you share. In human therapy this could look like putting awareness on your internal belief system and asking if those beliefs are actually true and serving your highest good.

Training is also therapeutic in that it "heals" traumas in your dog's past that might cause fearful, nervous, or aggressive behavior. It also trains new pathways in the brain so your dog can think about the world differently. I have also found this to happen to the human who does the training. For example, we can also be reactive and cause reactivity in our dogs. Training becomes a modality by which we can become aware of this reactivity and heal it within ourselves and therefore our dog.

When you think about training your dog as a conversation, healing, and "rewiring" in this way, vs, telling them what to do and they must do it - It really changes the dynamic!

Pretty freaking amazing!

At least I think so.

It gives "dog training" a very different focus by putting more emphasis on improving your connection with your dog as the goal, and the "listening when you ask" becomes a symptom of your deeper connection.

We all listen better to people we trust, understand, and who give clear instructions. We want to follow those people. Our dogs are no different.

This is one of the ways dogs can teach us about being better leaders and better humans if we let them. Training helps us take a look at what we really believe about the world and if those beliefs are really true. They help us step out of our comfort zone and try on new beliefs about the world.

You can think of dog training as one way communication:

You tell your dog what to do and they must do it because you said so


You can think of dog training as two way communication that fosters relationship and connection:

You ask your dog to do something and they can and will do it because you have prepared them and they trust you because you have listened to them and acknowledged their concerns.

Our dogs are sentient, intelligent beings.

They don't need to "rule the roost" , but they should be allowed to have feelings and feel like they can ask questions and get support from us when they need it.

Often when dogs act up they are just asking questions about what is going on in the environment and looking to us for support and guidance. Sometimes we don't know how to offer support and guidance and that's ok,

that's what dog trainers are for!

Being able to take responsibility for how your dog navigates the world by getting the help you need to reach your goals is a HUGE step.

"Empowerment is only accessed through taking responsibility of yourself and all aspects of your life"

-Noam Chomsky

So what I am really trying to say is can we treat our relationships with dogs as actual relationships? Can we take responsibility for our side of the relationship, and accept that there are a lot of things that we just don't know, and that's ok. That there are a lot of things we may need to heal within ourselves before they will resolve within our dog.

What we can do is discover more about ourselves and our dogs and use training as the medium to do this. We can use training as the medium to move beyond just getting our dogs to do stuff, and instead use it to foster deeper connection to ourselves and therefore everything else in our life.

To find out more about Valerie you can visit her About page at

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